The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam

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On the southern edge of Bedlam, back in 1869, stood a tall old oak tree. It’s fame and glory stemmed from the fact that it had been host to a multitude of hangings. Conveniently located, it lived and grew beside the road that ran to the river. This highly prominent tree was used with regularity by enforcers of the law who wished to see justice carried out to its fullest measure. The town’s large graveyard lay just beyond the tree, which only helped increase the oak’s popularity. Having a cemetery nearby quickened the entire procedure, for little time need be wasted between the drop and the burial.

In the year in which our story took place, the mighty oak was about 75-80 years old. Its height was estimated at 70 feet. As seen from afar, the crown appeared irregular in shape. In its asymmetrical pose, it leaned to the east, enabling itself to hang a few branches over and across the dirt road. These wickedly crafted branches shot forth from the tree’s most distinguishing feature, its lowest limb. This skinny, but sturdy limb jutted straight out from the trunk, whereas the rest of the limbs above it reached for the sky. Perpendicular to the trunk, it gave the tree a peculiar look. It reminded the folks of a flagpole in the way that it thrust itself out from the main. Being only 10 feet above the ground, it provided a means for the simple task of tying a rope. Positioned 8 feet from the trunk, two side by side branches shot up from the limb forming a V-shape. In the middle of these two branches lay a well-worn ring where the bark had been rubbed away, the scars of its labor having been caused by the frequency of its usage.

All throughout it’s long and storied history, this grand and stately tree had been fortunate in the fact that it had never succumbed to disease, nor had it ever been home to pesky insect infestations. Luckily for the tree, lightning strikes had let it be, whilst they struck and mangled many an other in its general vicinity. Natural disasters had left it alone. In their season of cranky moods, the fierce and usually unrelenting tornadoes had steered clear of its steadfast location every time they appeared in the area. Because of its good fortune, the tree had stayed intact. Except for the leaves that it dropped in the fall, along with a few small twigs that it lost here and there, now and then, the tree had retained all the parts it had grown up with. Perfect, whole, and complete, the oak had remained immaculate in its formation, having lived out its entire life in multi-dimensional tranquility.

We can hardly blame that old tree for its bad reputation. It had done nothing to deserve it. It wasn’t able to understand man and his ways. Absolutely, it had always acted as it should, in an appropriate manner, natural and common to its kind. Except for those times when men would come to swing on its limb, people shied away from it, especially at night, whilst all the rest of God’s creatures treated it with dignity and respect. Folks said the big oak was haunted. “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more…”, but the tree didn’t kill them. Quite to the contrary, it took and accepted those men’s souls unto itself. The tree didn’t know how, or why it did that type of thing, it just did. It thought all the trees around there were able to do it, and would act in the same way under similar circumstances, if given the opportunity. As far as the old oak was concerned, that’s what trees were for, that was their reason for living. From its very beginnings, this big, humble tree had maintained a neutral stance of equanimity, thus placing itself in the highest degree of servitude for the sake of mankind. It lived an amoral life. It could not judge between right and wrong. It had no such knowledge. It made no distinctions between the two. Time and time again, the souls of the innocent and the guilty alike were welcomed into its inner sanctum.

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Chapter Four

Luke was shaken to the core by the little girl’s question, but it was all the inspiration he needed to do what must be done. Determined to carry out her wish to the fullest measure, Luke vanquished any and all misgivings he had about going back in there. He didn’t hesitate for a moment, even though he was putting his own life on the line in doing so. The little cozy home had turned into a fiery furnace, and he hastened to make his way through the harsh smoke. It had worsened. Thick and all-encompassing, the dark gray fumes escaped through every nook and cranny. Smoke was enveloping the entire house, and Luke was doing his best to remain calm and collected.

Once at the entrance, he could vaguely tell the furniture had also begun to go up in flames. To the smell of burning wood, the upholstery added another dimension. The foul stench and stinking scents forced Luke to take short, quick breaths and he remained close to the floor as he coursed through and around the dangerous obstacles in his path. Once safely into the bedroom, he found the bed and attempted to awaken the mother one last time, even though he knew it’d be useless. Luke’s instincts informed him that he needed to get out of there immediately! He got down on his knees and pulled her onto and over his shoulder. She was a heavy load, but he would bear the burden. He slowly stood up and found his balance, then lugged her out the bedroom door. He was feeling the weight, and physical exhaustion was settling in from exertion and lack of oxygen. Finally, they reached the front door and stepped out. Just in the nick of time! They were only a few feet out into the yard when he heard the crash of the roof caving in right behind them.

Luke spotted the children on the grass, and continued walking directly at them to bring them their most precious possession. “These kids have lost their mother, their brother, and possibly their father, too! How on earth do I tell them? What’ll I say now?” he pondered. The little girl and boy were now huddled around their big brother. He sees two older ladies coming quickly towards them in bedclothes and house robes. “It’s about time someone showed up,” he thought with a sense of relief. But they had already been bewitched by the magic of the huge healthy fire, and its hypnotic effects were clear. Luke could see it in their eyes. “Not much help,” he mumbled to himself in his frustration.

Feeling his strength draining away, Luke reaches the children and goes down on one knee, gently laying their mother beside their brother. “Mommy? Mommy? What’s wrong?” the kids ask, rushing over to surround her. Their sobs increased tremendously, because now they knew something was wrong. Very wrong! Luke backed away indecisive. Looking at the two children…blackened from the smoke, but alive and basically unscathed…seeing them there in a panic, confused by the concept of death…all together now…the whole scene for Luke was bewildering. Coming out of this perplexed state of mind got easier for him when the neighbor ladies arrived. They seemed to understand what happened without even asking. Luke had been wrong about those two not being able to help, and he felt sorry for having assumed as much.

Luke stared in amazement at what was once a home, and realized how lucky he was to make it out of there. His gaze turns to the church, then it strikes him. “I have to go in there?” He looks back at the kids, “Is that where your father is?” The two worried little ones nod in the affirmative. Luke knew he must steady himself, although he had no time to waste. He concentrated on gathering up his strength and courage by taking a deep breath, but as soon as he tried, he activated a coughing fit. Beads of perspiration instantly formed on his forehead. An invigorating cool breeze caught him by surprise, and sent chills up and down his spine. He shivered and shook for a moment or two. “Take little breaths,” he told himself, and he found that this he could do. This small amount of brisk air sprung him back to life somewhat, and alerted him to his current predicament. Now having the will to go on, he clearly saw the task set before him. “I must go get their father,” was the only thought he had. The strength behind this thought banished any and all fears from his person.

Until, that is, he took his first foreboding step towards the inflamed building. Doubt has a way of getting around the strongest of wills, and Luke was no exception to this rule. He knew he had a fight on his hands, and that it was going to take place inside him. The front half of the church was getting the worst of it, so he headed on around to the back door where fear would meet hope head on.

Chapter Three

Luke was flat-out flying towards the fire! Then suddenly a thought crossed his mind. He dug in his heels and stopped in his tracks. After turning around to face the town, he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Help! Help!”, as loud as he could. Then Luke took off again at a mad speed, deciding on the way he should go to the pastor’s home first. They were probably all in bed with no clue as to what was happening. He arrived at their front door in less than a minute and reached for the handle. Luckily, before he touched it, it occurred to him that the handle might be hot. He also remembered to expect a lot of smoke. Then he pounded a closed fist on the door thrice.  He reached both hands behind his neck, untied the knot on his bandanna and used that on the door handle. In a flash, he swung open the door, jumped back and over to the side letting the smoke billow out. After a few seconds, Luke could see in through the doorway pretty well. Before he entered, he stopped and tied the bandanna over his nose and mouth.

Luke knew the whereabouts of the two bedrooms. He instantly decided to head toward the larger bedroom to awaken the pastor and his wife. The flames and smoke were obviously coming from the kitchen area. He might have thought its cause accidental, if not for the fact that the church went up in flames simultaneously. Luke absolutely knew he had no time to investigate, and continued his march towards the bedroom. The door was open. He entered and looked at the bed, seeing only the mother laying there immobile, flat on her back. Luke was sorely afraid that preacher man was over at the church. “Get up! Get up!” he yelled as he ran to her. He took hold of her shoulders and shook her, “Wake up! Wake up!”, but there was no response forthcoming. “The children, the children,” he thought, and let her be. As he was leaving the room he noticed the wad of sheets ruffled up at the end of the bed. Two blankets and one of the pillows lay innocently on the floor. The air was becoming more noxious by the minute. As he hurried through the doorway, he remembered hearing these words that once came from the voice of his father, “Stay calm. Stay calm.”

As he made his way to the children’s room, he distinctly heard the little girl cry out, “Mommy? Mommy?” He rushed in,”C’mon! C’mon! Get up! We gotta get outta here!” The girl was fine, but extremely frightened. She recognized Luke, even though he was wearing the bandanna, and allowed him to wrap her up in the quilt, and pick her up in his arms. He spun around to look in the boy’s direction, and the youngest was already coming towards him, coughing and carrying his blanket. Luke moved the girl to hold her in one arm, grabbed the boy’s hand, and began to walk them out, stooping down a ways into cleaner air as he went. He turned his head back towards the other boy who also lay there still as could be.  Luke let out a another quick,”Wake up! Wake up!”, but the boy wasn’t moving, so off he went, pulling the little one behind him. “Thank God, these two are okay, at least!” Luke thought to himself, instead of thanking the Lord directly.

The kitchen was all ablaze by this time. Crackling and loud popping sounds could be heard as the group exited through the front door, and on out into the fresh chilled air of the night. Luke didn’t see anyone else out there, and began to wonder if he was going to get any help at all from the neighbors. Ten seconds later, they were a safe distance away from the nasty smoke and scorching flames. As he sat the girl on the slightly wet grass, he bade the two sit down. “Stay here! I’ll be right back.” Shooting a glance over at the church, it looked to him like the entire front half of the structure was aflame. “Holy smokes is right!” came to his mind for the very first time in the truest sense.

Smoke was rolling out of the door by now, so he crouched down low to make his way back to the bedroom for the eldest. The boy still hadn’t moved. Luke grabbed his thigh and shook him, but gathered no response. “Damn, Lord! He was a good kid!” Luke pulled him off the bed, and slung him over his shoulder, staying low as he trudged his way back out. He’d never carried a dead child before, and it felt horrible. Simply horrible! He finally reached the other two and lay the boy beside them. Pleadingly, the girl asks, “Where’s Mommy?” Luke’s heart sunk to his stomach. Their mother had already given up the ghost. He was sure she’d taken her last breath some time ago. “I’m going to get her now, dear. Let your older brother be. He needs rest.” Luke had no qualms about telling this lie.

Catching what breath he could as he headed back in, he found himself angry from the turmoil, but all the while he felt his heart being broke in two. “Here we go again, Lord. Stay with me. What will I tell the children this time out?” But Luke didn’t have time to wait for an answer. He wondered, “Where is everybody? I wish my wife was here.” Again he blasted out to the town, “Help! Help!”

Chapter Two

Luke was a God-fearing man, although he didn’t see himself as overly religious. He took The Bible at its Word, and understood the basics, but over and above all that he placed his trust in his instincts. They’d never failed him before in his whole life, as far back as he could remember, so he thought he’d earned the right to see himself as a man of faith. Like most people from rural areas who prize a mule for its stubbornness, he superstitiously maintained his loyalty to family traditions and other meaningless rituals taught to him by his parents. Never before in his life had he taken any kind of quick action perceived by others as something heroic. It wasn’t because he lacked brazen courage, because he had proven himself brave enough by making the move and bringing his family out West. By trade he was a blacksmith, and able to find work wherever he went. He’d gone to the saloon that night to meet up with Sam Hill, one of the wealthier landowners from those parts. This very prosperous man owned a horse ranch; the largest in the territory. He concluded the meeting with Luke by offering him a full-time job. Luke immediately accepted. Thus he was in a state of joy and excitement, feeling fairly secure as he made his way on through the swinging doors into the moonlit street.

At 10 p.m. that Saturday night, Luke hit the road elated. It looked deserted, not a soul in sight, and thus it was eerily quiet. Until, not being able to help himself, he kicked up some dirt with the heel of his boot, clenched his fists, and let out a big old “Yeehaw!” so loud that anyone within listening distance could have easily heard him. Immediately, he felt a smidgen embarrassed for having done such a thing, then walked on with his head hanging low for a ways in a feeble attempt to make himself invisible to anyone who might have gotten up to look out their window to see what’s the matter.

Soon back to his old confident self, Luke carried on at a quicker pace, discretely restraining the merriment on his face, while he continued his walk with head held high. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife the great news, and the grand realized hope of new beginnings. Unfortunately, as things do not always turn out as planned, Luke was destined to play a part in the tragedy that was about to unfold. Needless to say, he didn’t get to do what he was most anxiously waiting and wanting to do right then, even though he was very nearly home.

His attention was soon drawn to the church up ahead. He fell to thinking about the pastor, and how he had volunteered himself more than a few times, and had helped him build his little house. It made Luke to feel somewhat settled in his heart, knowing he had done something intrinsically good, something worthy of his time, for his time he valued highly.

He liked this preacher man. He was very friendly and sociable, as was his young wife, and their kids were well-behaved for their ages. They had a cute little girl of four years, and two boys, aged six and ten. Luke knew them pretty well. Almost every day they’d come over to play in the backyard with his own kids, and they would have happily swung on the swing all day, if allowed. Luke had made the swing himself. It was only a rope that wound through a board. He’d hung it from a low, strong branch that belonged to the large elm tree standing on his property. The swing was sturdy enough that he could enjoy it for himself from time to time.

These and similar type thoughts were going through his mind as he closed in on the threshold of his homey existence. It was at this point that Luke eyed the shadowy figure on horseback who was lazily moseying his way out-of-town. Deciding right then and there it wasn’t really any of his business, he dropped the matter from his mind. The stranger was free to go, and he wasn’t going to run after him. The man certainly wasn’t about to heed his or anyone else’s advice, come what may. Just as Luke was about to reach for the door, he caught a whiff of smoke. As he turned his head to look back at the church, he spied all the signs of a fire. The first few flames had just begun to flicker under and out from the overhang of the roof. Luke involuntarily dropped his jaw and stared in shock and amazement at the scene taking place right before his very eyes. For a moment he just stood there, scared stiff and frozen in place. What aroused him back to his senses was another attention grabber. The pastor’s house was also beginning to catch fire. Luke gathered his wits about him, then took to running in that direction as fast as his legs would allow him to go.

Hanging On Tree’s Every Word: Chapter One

The day had started out quite beautiful and rather warm for that time of year. It was the morning after those damnable occurrences, after the devil-ridden chaos which transpired during that most terrible night in Bedlam. Autumn’s weather had been lovely to begin with, and it remained unusually wonderful on up to October 30th, 1869, when our story begins.

The mighty oak, famous in these parts for the many hangings that took place on its lowest limb over the last 20 years, stood on the outskirts of a small town that had seen its better days. Although the town didn’t officially have a name, the folks from around there called it Bedlam. Lying a few miles off the Oregon Trail, it had been witness to the mass migration of folks who had dropped everything to rush for the gold discovered in California in 1849 and  for many years afterwards. The new transcontinental railroad was not a boon for this little settlement. The track was laid 10 miles northward. Almost all the residents of Bedlam packed up their belongings, and made their way toward the mostly unoccupied lands surrounding the recently built train station. They knew there would be a growing city of significant size there someday. The few poorer families remaining behind planned to do the same once they could afford the costs.

Matthew, a family man, had returned to Bedlam from his future homestead that morning with supplies and the latest news. More than tragic and disturbing were these facts from the night before. A mass murder occurred involving a young pastor, his wife, and the oldest of three children. This most innocent of families lived in a little shack beside the newly built church. The novice preacher only needed to put a few more finishing touches on his place of worship before he could begin holding services. He constructed the two on the southern edge of the city, apart from the rest of the homes and far away from the only saloon for miles around. There was a witness of sorts; a man who stepped out of the saloon a few hours after sunset. His name was Luke. Although he took heroic measures, his valiant efforts were partly in vain. Only the two youngest children survived. The next morning, Luke relayed his story to Matthew and a few other men who gathered together outside the general store.

Luke testified that he went to the saloon the night before because he had a job interview. For good reason, he only allowed himself two glasses of whiskey, and was in no way tipsy when he excused himself from the meeting to go home. As Luke neared his house, he could easily see the church which was just a little ways on down the dirt road. The skies were crystal clear on that cool crisp night with a very nearly Full Moon’s light. All of a sudden, just a ways beyond the pastor’s property, Luke eyed a shadowy figure on horseback casually making his way out-of-town.

The rider appeared to be dressed all in black. He was wearing a cape that floated and flapped in the wind, which was blowing head on and straightaway into his and Luke’s face. This dark and mysterious man rode a shiny black stallion and wore a wide-brimmed hat. Although, from the shape of it, he could tell it wasn’t a cowboy hat at all. It reminded him of the one that stranger had on; the stranger who showed up alone in town that very morning to stock up on supplies. Luke presumed it was the same man. The fact he was leaving town so late seemed more than odd. “That’s plain stupid!” Luke remembered thinking, “and dangerous, too.”  Concluding his account, Luke exclaimed, “No one in their right mind would take that kind of risk, if they had any sense. Ain’t nothing but miles and miles of rugged terrain out there. We all know that. Nothing but a lawless countryside once he rides on out of Bedlam.”

About this suspicious character, Luke knew very little. He saw him leaving the store that morning and, letting his curiosity get the best of him, Luke took the time out of his busy schedule to go inside and ask about the tall handsome stranger in a tailored suit and cloak. This is what he gathered from the clerk. Apparently, the man spoke no English whatsoever, or if he did, he didn’t let on about it. After the clerk had added up the cost of all he brought to the counter, this obvious foreigner pulled a leather string-drawn pouch from his coat pocket. The stranger wanted to settle the deal by way of gold. The clerk didn’t have a problem with that. It was fairly customary in this part of the country. He got out the scale and proceeded to give the man a fair transaction. The sharply dressed man smiled his gesture of satisfaction, and gave the clerk a small nugget as a tip, which made the clerk nervously rejoice, for no one had ever done such a thing in his store before. The man was polite and courteous, so much so that one might think him an aristocrat, or a prince even, one from somewhere far away in another land across the sea.